Disappearing vouchers and abandoned public schools
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Disappearing vouchers and abandoned public schools

Stock Photo | klimkin by Pixabay
Tom Campbell

Tears are shed over the Legislature’s failure to provide additional funding for private school vouchers. One Charlotte mother complained, “We elected them on a promise that they would provide free education for all, and that didn’t happen.”

Dear Charlotte Mom: You are wrong. Every child in North Carolina has a chance at a free education in traditional public schools. Your child is not being punished. In fact, children in traditional schools are being punished — punished because our General Assembly took money that should have gone to public K-12 districts to give money to private schools.

I sincerely doubt that most legislators are running on a platform of giving more millions to private schools, but it would be nice to know the names of those who have made it a priority. There are public school advocates in their districts who would likely help punish them.

Still, lawmakers were widely expected to increase the amount of money earmarked for the bonds in this short session. But the session adjourned without budget writers allocating more than the amount approved in 2023.

Opportunity Scholarships were initiated to offer low-income families a voucher to attend a private school. They were always just a thinly disguised means of school choice, and have been continually expanded with increased funding and drastically lowered eligibility thresholds.

The 2023 session of the Legislature removed all income limits for qualifications. A student from a low-income family can now receive $7,468 in vouchers, while a student from the highest income tier receives only $3,360.

The average tuition for private schools is $9,056 for elementary schools and $10,066 for secondary schools, so even low-income families will have to come up with extra money for tuition.

After those changes were made, the floodgates burst in 2023 with a record 71,956 new scholarship applications. The State Education Assistance Authority says it has enough money to award only 15,805 scholarships and that priority should be given to applications with the lowest incomes.

The solution? More funding. Before the short session began, we heard that a whopping $248 million in additional funding would be approved for next year, bringing the total for private schools to $500 million.

Lawmakers faced a perfect storm of opposition. Across the state, educators, education advocates, columnists, media and parents raised a huge hue and cry, accusing lawmakers of dismantling traditional public education. The noise grew exponentially when it was revealed that 88.2 percent of existing voucher funds went to religious schools, alarming many because of the potential separation of church and state. Even if the proposed increase were fully funded, some parents would not be happy.

In late May, the Senate approved an increase in funding for private school vouchers, passing a separate bill that would increase vouchers by $463 million over the next two years. The House was more cautious. Speaker Tim Moore said he thought the voucher increase should be included as part of the state budget, not a separate bill. The House then proposed increasing vouchers but also increasing funding for traditional public schools, especially teacher salaries.

The Senate disagreed. Was this additional funding for traditional public schools and teacher salaries what Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger called “pork”?

Unable to compromise, the legislature decided to make everyone on both sides of education unhappy by adjourning and returning home, although with promises to perhaps reconvene in the fall. Of course, this will not appease parents who have to decide which school their child will attend in mid-August.

Money wasn’t the issue. There’s evidence that the state’s surplus in recent years may be shrinking, but for now, billions in surplus money are available. And it’s a good bet that whatever lawmakers come up with on the vouchers, Gov. Roy Cooper will veto it. A veto override vote may be something many lawmakers would like to avoid, especially before an election.

There are so many things wrong with this whole discussion. For starters, using public money for private enterprise. We currently rank 48th in per-pupil spending and we want to give millions more to private schools.

Some who like to point out the failures of public schools don’t talk about private school accountability, mostly because they can’t. We’re abandoning the traditional public school system, never perfect but once a source of pride in our state. There are racial and economic undertones to this, and a violation of our constitutional promise to provide every child in our state with a solid basic education. And you can be sure that all 170 legislators are concerned about listening to disgruntled voters in November.

But one thing we haven’t heard is how we can fix our current public schools. That’s one conversation our leaders are eager to have.

Tom Campbell is a member of the North Carolina Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame and a columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He can be reached at [email protected].